On my 42nd birthday last week, my divorced parents of 39 years helped me celebrate by having dinner with me. It was just my parents, my husband, and my kids (I don’t have any siblings).
When all was said and done, the dinner was wonderful; but it had taken 35 years for them to get to this point. (Talk about a long time coming.) I knew I had to ask the waitress to take a photo to commemorate the moment, and I’m so glad I did:
As we dined on mussels and scampi at a quaint seaside restaurant not far from where they separately live in Ireland, all I could think was, “Why has it taken so long to get to this point?’
My parents separated when my mom was pregnant with me and officially divorced when I was 3. My memories of my childhood are littered with disappointments and an overwhelming sense of guilt from trying to please them both while also trying keep the peace.
At age 18, I escaped to England to attend college and never returned home for longer than two weeks at a time. I wanted to avoid the drama, the angst, and the stress that came with my warring families.
I always wondered why my parents couldn’t try to put their differences aside and maintain a civil relationship for the sake of their child. It would have made my life infinitely easier and also have made me want to be around them more, rather than running as far in the opposite direction as my feet could take me.
Looking back, here’s how I wish my parents had acted to make life easier on me …
1. Make school events a parents-only affair.
My experience: A total minefield. My dad would automatically assume my mom would attend all school functions and had to be cajoled into going to parent meetings my teachers. They would then squabble in the hallway, culminating in my dad storming off. They simply could not put their personal differences aside to focus on me. Often, I hid letters about school events in my bag, rather than having to deal with the war of who would go to what.
How to do it: School events can be a headache, especially if you have new partners or spouses who expect to be brought along, but draw a line and insist that any kid-related school event is a parents-only affair. It isn’t about integrating families, it’s about you being the best and most interested parent in your child’s education. End of story. Meet for a coffee beforehand to get any gripes out of the way and then plaster on fake smiles, if necessary.
Be united in the one cause that matters: your child. You want the best for them, so show the school your best self. It can be done.
2. Stick to the same ground rules when it comes to your kid’s dating life.
My experience: I was so worried about offending my dad by having my long-term boyfriend meet my mom first, that I decided to hide the whole relationship from them both. I became wildly secretive about any boys I dated. I wanted something that was just mine. That they couldn’t use as a weapon in their arsenal against each other, like my mom telling my dad, “You letting him sleep over in the house, even in separate bedrooms, is wrong,” or vice versa. It would become less about me and more about point scoring. So I told them nothing.
How to do it: Try and meet your kid’s date, but don’t encroach on their lives or take offense if the date has met your ex first. It makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. What you need to do is meet up and stick to the same ground rules.
Once again, put aside personal differences to focus on one thing: this new boyfriend or girlfriend who is making your kid happy! Hoorah! All that should concern you is that your teen is able to communicate with you about the relationship. And that includes even if they find talking to your ex easier. It doesn’t matter. They’re talking to someone and that’s the main thing. Teens have it hard enough without having the extra stress of worrying, “If I confide in my mom, will that make my dad feel excluded?”
3. Don’t make weekends a competition.
My experience: I stayed living with my mom’s ex-boyfriend after they split up. It was the sanest place to be: an oasis that my parents couldn’t touch. I saw both my mom and dad, but often their anger for each other (or this ex of my mom’s) became so consuming that they weren’t able to listen to my needs at all. They took things personally rather than trying to understand why I liked staying at my mom’s ex-boyfriend’s home.
How to do it: So your kid grows up spending one weekend with you, one with your ex. Then they become a teen and suddenly they want more time at mom’s house (or dad’s) because their boyfriend lives next door. Don’t take it personally. They’re just spreading their wings and gaining independence. Try to understand why they want to make the choices that they do and try to be flexible. It isn’t a competition about who has the better house/bigger fridge/more relaxed curfew rules, it’s about adapting as your kid grows up and listening to their needs.
4. Take turns on birthdays and holidays.
My experience: On my 18th birthday, I decided against a party because my parents couldn’t agree on how they would pay for it. My mom would say, “Ask your dad for money, he has it.” Likewise, my dad would come back with, “Ask your mother for money, she runs a hair salon.” This meant I usually did without the tennis racket, gym shoes, or whatever else I needed at the time, as they were always too busy arguing over who would pay for it.
Their childishness made me suffer. Christmases were the worst, as I ate two Christmas dinners, was inevitably picked up too early by one parent, and spent the whole day feeling guilty I wasn’t with the other. It was miserable. I truly think this is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of Christmas, even to this day.
How to do it: Obviously, the ideal birthday scenario is that you see your kid together, on the same day. (See: my fabulous 42nd birthday above!) If you can stomach each other even for just a meal, then that’s great! But if not, take turns: one year your kid has dinner with Dad on their birthday, and the next year with Mom. Or if it’s on a weeknight, then let them celebrate on that day with whomever they live with, and then celebrate with the other parent on the weekend.
As for Christmas: again, take turns. Don’t make your kid eat two massive meals back-to-back just to fit you both in. Be civil. Maybe one year a grandparent is ill or a special occasion will crop up and you’ll swap. Maybe bad weather stops your kid from traveling at all. Just remember that it isn’t about you getting your perfect Christmas. It’s about understanding that obviously you both want to see your kids on Christmas day, but that it’s just ONE day out of the whole year and there will be many, many others.
Bottom line, don’t make your kid choose. Talk to your ex and draw up a plan — and whatever you do, don’t play any games. No one wins when your kid is unhappy and feeling guilty; least of all you.
5. For vacations, focus on your kid’s needs — not your own insecurities.
My experience: To be honest, this was one area my folks actually did OK in. They couldn’t afford many fancy vacations, so I never had to choose between who I should spend school breaks or travel time with. Often in the summer holidays, I went to stay with my dad, as he lived closer to my friends.
How to do it: So you want to take your kid to see the Grand Canyon and your ex has plans to go to Spain at the same time. Talk. Reason, negotiate, and work out a solution. There is always a solution. Never make your kid feel bad if they decide that rather than spend a week in some cold, wet caravan in Wales, they want to spend it poolside with Dad in Florida.
Yes, it is a hard pill to swallow if your ex happens to have a bunch of fancy-pants houses, holidays, and gifts to shower your kid with; but think about the kid, not your insecurities. Kids don’t love one parent more than the other just because they buy them cool stuff or take them on pricey vacations, so why should they miss out just because you feel inadequate? Again, this is about them — not you.
6. Be there for graduation day — end of story.
My experience: When my mom dropped me off at college in London, my dad took very little interest, merely asking what it would cost him. I felt disappointed that he wasn’t more engaged about where I was going to study for three years. I felt even more disappointed when the three years ended and he refused to come to graduation, wanting to avoid spending a day with my mother.
How to do it: This is it, people. Your kid is heading off into the great big world, and it’s your last chance to show them that you can be a grown-up! Being a united front at a time that’s very unnerving for your kid will make so much difference. Help them with their choices, support them if they don’t make the grade, and try to understand their decisions.
Dropping them off at college or seeing them walk on graduation day are huge moments. Don’t you want to be there?
8. Remember that your child’s wedding day is their special day (not yours).
My experience: My dad called me up a few weeks before I got married and said he wouldn’t make a speech if my mom’s ex-boyfriend was invited. I cried, stressed, and then decided: so be it, I’ll make a speech myself. My dad argued with me about what he would contribute financially, so I decided to take out a loan to pay for the wedding breakfast. In the end, he agreed to pay for it, but the stress and worry I had about how to have our wedding was something I never want my kids to have to go through.
How to do it: Agree in advance how much (if anything) you want to contribute and stick to it. Don’t make the funds come with obligations.
Next, make sure your kid knows that as long as you’re there, it doesn’t matter where you sit or what role you play in it all. There is so much stress that comes with organizing a wedding, the last thing they need is to worry about whether you can cope with seeing your ex or how offended you’ll be if you don’t have a starring role. Put on your best self and be gracious and lovely to all, no matter how many years you’ve held grudges.
Remember: it’s their special day. Revel in the fab kid you’ve helped produce and how happy they are. Celebrate that. All the rest? Shove it in a big box marked “not for today.”
9. Learn to share the grandkids.
My experience: Well, they have been the salvation of all. When my son was 4 months old, I got a job as a TV show presenter in Ireland and had to fly home every weekend with him. As I worked, my family watched him. And you know what? They all took turns dropping him off and picking him up, which meant my parents ACTUALLY SPOKE. They finally made peace over his fluffy baby head. The relief I felt was incredible. Now we can spend Christmases and other events together, and they just dote on my kids. It has been a revelation.
How to do it: Share, share, share. How amazing is it that you now have these little people in your life? It is time to bury the past and look to the future: they are right there, toddling in front of you. Your kid has gone on to parent, and they are looking to you for guidance. So the way you behaved with your ex or your new partner is what they will now be emulating. Moreover, they’re passing it on to the little people they’ve created.
This is the time to REALLY step up for your kids if you haven’t before. Give them a break, spend time with your gorgeous grandkids, and thank your lucky stars you are alive to see them. Life is too short, isn’t it?
If you want your kid to grow up well-adjusted, happy, secure, and confident, then it’s pretty simple: don’t make them a pawn in your war. Don’t badmouth your ex, don’t make your kid feel guilty about their choices, and always make them the main focus. No matter how much your ex hurt you or how vile the divorce was — it’s irrelevant.
As long as you’re being the best mom or dad you can be to your kid, that’s all that matters.
Sure, it isn’t easy holding your tongue, compromising, or watching your ex move on with a new partner while you raise three kids alone. All of it doesn’t come with a guidebook. Every day there is a new curveball coming at you at high speed. But take it from me: your kids don’t have to suffer because of your broken-down relationship. If you can be the bigger person, your kid will appreciate it more than you will ever know.
From someone who saw all the wrong ways, I only wish that my parents had had this list when I was growing up.